Successfully bringing the strange into your stories
A year ago I was asked on a writing course to consider the difference between magical realism and fabulism, to which my response was… ‘eh?’
But nowadays I love writing about strange things and writing in strange ways. I don’t worry about the labels, I just enjoy the creativity.
This post isn’t about genre fiction – which I don’t have a lot of experience of – it’s more about bringing weird elements into contemporary or literary fiction in ways that can help your work stand out.
1. Experiment with structure. Say you’ve written a perfectly good story, but you’re worried it might be lacking in oomph or originality. Try keeping the bones of your story, but play around with the structure. What would your story look like if…
– You reversed the timeline and started with your ending?
– You took all the full stops out and made one big sentence?
– You interspersed the paragraphs with bible verses, or nursery rhyme titles, or instructions from your hoover manual?
The trick is to be random, but still relevant to the themes presented in your story.
For an example of unusual structure in a very emotional story please see Life in a Teacup by Alison Woodhouse in Matter Magazine
2. Add an unusual character. Again, start with a story idea you already have. Now think about the main themes presented there and choose a famous person, or a person from another time period, or even another dimension who might be relevant to, or shine light on, those themes. What might they say to your characters? What advice might they give? Might they run away with one of the characters? Might they just watch and judge from the sidelines? Might they join in with your character’s lives and become part of the family? Might they be narrating your story?
(You may need to do a bit of research if you wish to use a real person in your story – check that you aren’t breaking any laws)
For two very different but equally excellent examples, please see Sylvia Plath Watches Us Sleep, But We Don’t Mind by Victoria Richards in The London Magazine
And also, Dear David by Yael van der Wouden in Longleaf Review
3. Strange yet familiar. It’s an oft-repeated idea, because it’s a good one – update a fairy tale or urban legend. Could you take a character or situation that your reader will already know, and subvert it somehow? Place the characters in a different setting? Or even just use the familiar names we all know to shed light on your characters?
For a very unusual take on a classic tale, please see Matchbox Ballerina by David Cook in Riggwelter Press, Issue 7, page 26
4. Weirdness in the everyday. Try to look below the surface of an everyday object and write from there. The chair you’re sitting on – who made it? How far has it travelled? What did it see as it came to you? The books on your shelf, do any of them have personal inscriptions? Or a certain page turned over or a phrase underlined? Can you use an object as a metaphor? Does it have certain connotations that can bring meaning to a story idea?
Start thinking about the who, why, what of everyday objects and see where the story takes you.
For a story that uses an object as a powerful metaphor, please see They Have Knives, Don’t They? by Christina Dalcher in The Cabinet of Heed
5. Go weird or go home. This is less an exercise or tip, and more an invitation. Please, give yourself permission to experiment. I really don’t think that this type of writing is a ‘cheat’ or ‘novelty’ and I wouldn’t advise something I didn’t fully believe in myself. I’ve written about sentient belly buttons, sassy cheese graters, psychic lobsters and skeletons in supermarkets and all of those stories have been published and well received (although it does make that ‘so what sort of things do you write about?’ question a tad trickier to answer.)
If you’re still not convinced, I can link to articles highlighting the current trend of strangeness in fiction, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/fiction-is-becoming-darker-weirder-bent-out-of-shape-1.3567088
I can link you to (big) prize winning stories that tread a fine line between real and unreal, https://www.galleybeggar.co.uk/ssp-2018-brothers-mee/)
and I can link you to collections of stories that thrive on weirdness (http://www.neworleansreview.org/speak-gigantular/)
And if you want some more inspiration, here are 3 of my recent favourite weird stories that defy categorisation
Magenta by Molly Gutman in Fairytale Review. This story is part fairytale, part crime story, part meta-narrated horror. When I first read it, I immediately read it again. I don’t quite understand it, but I love it nonetheless.
Space Hopped by Lis Ingram Wallace which won the TSS publishing flash fiction contest. A dysfunctional coming of age tale with undercurrents of menace, violence, pop culture and difficult family dynamics. Again, I don’t quite understand it but … you get the gist.
And finally, Mr Puddles by Caleb Etcherling in Ellipsis Zine. A story turned play set far in the past but rooted in a very modern dating scene. And it’s very funny.
If you feel inspired to write something a little different after reading this, please let me know either here or on twitter, @jonzeywriter, I would love to read it!